Who was William Shakespeare?

At first this question might seem ridiculous. Everyone knows Shakespeare! He's one of the most famous writers of all time. It might surprise you to find out that the identity of the person (or persons) responsible for all those plays we know and love is actually a matter of debate. The "identity question" has been around for a long time, but was usually scoffed at by serious historians who regarded it the way most people do Roswell conspiracies and crop circles.

The fact of the matter is that there are some very compelling arguments against these plays being written by the man to which we attribute them. Many scholars doubt that this man - about whom we know so little - had the enormous background and education necessary to pen these works. That very lack of knowing is another concern: if William Shakespeare authored what is widely considered to be the greatest collection of literature in the history of the English language, why are there practically no records of him or his life? Why is he not mentioned in theater reviews as a playwright? Why could none of his children read or write?

Shakespeare has been the subject of "the greatest battery of organized research that has ever been directed upon a single person" and yet we know next to nothing.

Until now.

The Bolton High School Historical Detective Agency (that's you!) has agreed to take the case. Using their Ultimate Research Supercomputer (that's the internet!), they will gather data, weigh the facts, and issue a verdict on who deserves credit for all that verse.

The Task:

You will compile evidence about your 'suspect' individually and then present that evidence to your group. The groups will debate amongst themselves, reach a concensus, and then present that concensus to the class.

The Process:

First, I will be randomly dividing you into groups of four. Each member of your group will be assigned a different 'suspect'. These are historical figures that could have written these poems and plays. I will be assigning them to you randomly. There is plenty of good information on each, so don't worry about which one you get. Christopher Marlowe - accomplished poet and playwright Edward de Vere - nobleman and theater patron Sir Francis Bacon - famous essayist William Shakespeare - actor Conduct research! Use the two websites provided to read about your suspect: and Gather and record facts which would support a claim that your figure is the true author. You must have a minimum of four facts and they need to logically support your claim. When the research stage is complete, you will meet in your groups to discuss findings. Each detective will report on his or her suspect and explain their supporting facts. Once all the detectives have reported, the group will debate about the likelihood of each. You will attempt to - civilly and respectfully - reach a concensus on who you think deserves credit. Remember that there is not a right answer. Each group will present their decision to the class. If concensus could not be reached, that's fine, but each "faction" will need to present their choice separately. We will discuss the findings as a class and decide what all this might mean.

You will be graded on the following:

Conducting internet research Collecting at least four facts about your suspect Making sure those facts logically support your position that this person wrote the works attributed to Shakespeare Presenting these facts to your group Presenting your groups' decision about the most likely author to the class. If there is more than decision, each needs to be presented. Though you will be working in groups for some of the time, most of your grade will result from your individual effort. There are no tricks or traps here and I am certainly not expecting you to definitively answer the idenitity question. What I am expecting is that you participate in a living literary debate and see how one might reason through historical research. Follow the instructions and you will do well.



ResearchDid not conduct researchDescription of identifiable performance characteristics reflecting development and movement toward mastery.Description of identifiable performance characteristics reflecting mastery.Description of identifiable performance characteristics reflecting the highest level of performance.

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Group Presentation    
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The main point of this lesson was to provide a fun way to get some experience doing research. When presented with a question, you can use a tool like the internet to gather information and then use that information to fuel discussions. Just as important, though, is to realize that in conducting research you are making decisions. You choose to look at certain facts over others, such as those which support your position versus others which might not. It's easy to end up with a skewed view or to oversimplify a complex problem if you conduct research without bearing this in mind.

Credits & References:

The opening image obtained from

Credit is due to both of the linked sites as interesting compilations of research.

Inspiration for the lesson came from the article,8599,1661619,00.html.



PA.R.1.8.11.C > Organize, summarize and present the main ideas from research PA.SS.H.8.1.9.D __Analyze and interpret historical research; Historical event (time and place); Facts, folklore and fiction; Historical questions; Primary sources; Secondary sources; Conclusions (e. g., History Day projects, mock trials, speeches); Credibility of evidence; Author or source of historical narratives' points of view; Central issue

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